In the work of Slavoj Žižek
The concept of the vanishing mediator is Fredric Jameson’s invention, but he created it to explain what he saw as Max Weber’s central insight, namely that there are moments or events in history which propel us into a future that on the surface at least would seem to contradict their very spirit. The central case in point is Protestantism which, as Weber famously demonstrated in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1976), paved the way to secular capitalism by sanctifying labour. Once labour became godly, it was a very short step to thinking that work was by itself sufficiently worshipful such that other forms of religious observation were unnecessary or even redundant. Protestantism is in this sense a vanishing mediator because it brings about its own disappearance by means of its own doctrine.
On this view of things, secular capitalism came into being, then, not because religiosity was suppressed or theological thinking was negated, but for precisely the opposite reason: it was the very insistence on the strict letter of Protestant doctrine that brought about its undoing. This was not because the new Protestant doctrine effectively made life less religious or because it dismantled traditional religious structures and thereby paved the way to secular existence, as the vulgar Marxist position would have it. As Jameson explains, Weber’s brilliance was to show that the transition from medieval religious existence to modern secular existence came about because Protestantism made life more religious: “Calvin did not desacralize the world; on the contrary, he turned the entire world into a monastery” (Jameson 2008: 329). And in doing so, Protestantism drained its particular rites, rituals, practices and eventually beliefs too of their religious substance.
As Žižek points out in For They Know Not What They Do, which is where he offers his most detailed account of Jameson’s concept, the really interesting problem concerning the vanishing mediator is its necessity:
In other words, the point not to be missed is that one cannot pass from medieval “closed” society to bourgeois society immediately, without the intercession of Protestantism as “vanishing mediator”: it is Protestantism which, by means of its universalization of Christianity, prepares the ground for its withdrawal into the sphere of privacy. (TK: 183)
He goes on to suggest that, in political life, the Jacobins were fated to play a similar role: their very “radicalism prepared the way for its opposite, for the bourgeois universe of egotistic and acquisitive individuals who care not a pin for egalitarian moralism” (TK: 184). It is easy to see the Jacobins as modern precursors to twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, but “far more difficult and disquieting to acknowledge and assume fully the fact that, without Jacobinical ‘excess’, there would be no ‘normal’ pluralist democracy” (ibid.).
Žižek extends Jameson’s conception of the vanishing mediator to encompass the same realm as Badiou’s notion of the event. It is the moment when “truth” emerges (TK: 188). The vanishing mediator does not, then, refer to “those other- wise invisible or overlooked moments in major historical processes” as Rex Butler defines it (Butler 2005: 76). On the contrary, and perfectly dialectically, as Žižek himself defines the dialectic, it refers to those moments in history that one has to look at twice, as it were, in order to see that they really are precursors to the very thing that spells their end. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek stakes out this conception of the dialectic, which holds true throughout his work, with reference to Jane Austen, whom he describes as “perhaps the only counterpart to Hegel in literature”(SO: 62). Misrecognition, he argues, is the source of truth in Pride and Prejudice: it is only because they begin by failing to see each other in their true light that Darcy and Elizabeth are able to “work through” their respec- tive character flaws (Darcy’s false pride and Elizabeth’s equally false prejudice) and arrive at mutual understanding. In each case, both pride and prejudice can be described as vanishing mediators because they give rise to their opposite, namely truth.